Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon: Lent 1 - Luke 4.1-13

Many years ago I had the opportunity to study in Israel, at the Bar-Ilan University in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv. The whole time was absolutely fascinating: Israel isn’t a big country and during my time there I was able to visit most of the significant places associated with Jesus’ ministry and when I was thinking about this morning my mind was drawn back to a particular event, a particular view, on a journey from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea.

Israel’s wilderness is an arresting and challenging sight: endless arid mountains, stunningly beautiful in their honey-coloured way but harsh and pretty well lifeless, suffocatingly hot in the day and freezing at night, seemingly endless and relentless. It is hard to imagine a less hospitable environment

I went there by air conditioned coach. Jesus went on foot in the power of the Holy Spirit. I had a packed lunch, plenty of bottled water and lashings of sun-screen. We’re led to assume that Jesus had little or nothing and was left to his own devices. A day was enough for me. Jesus endured forty. And yet that one day allowed me to connect and to get a sense, however inadequate, of what Jesus went through.

Of course, it also helped that I had the benefit of hindsight and knew why Jesus had chosen this lonely vigil of prayer and contemplation at the start of his formal ministry: in the sort of term beloved of modern psychoanalysts Jesus was “finding himself”.

So what are the common threads that link Jesus’ wilderness experiences to the whole church at this time as we begin Lent? Of course it is a time of self-examination and a time of self-sacrifice. It may be a time of “finding ourselves” too, in the sense of a new self-awareness. If it was good enough for Jesus, then some way of formalising that for us, both as individuals and as a community, is clearly an appropriate thing to do, hence the development of the Lenten period that leads Jesus inexorably to Jerusalem and death.

Except that along the way we’ve rather lost the plot haven’t we? Today’s Old Testament passage sets the scene with its talk of making a sacrifice to God. Consider Orthodox Christians: an Orthodox fast consists of foregoing eggs, dairy produce, meat, fish, wine and oil. Just imagine the impact on your recipe options for the next forty days.

But I make assumptions: perhaps you’re one of those who manage to rise above the watered down version of a fast that has become the modern expression of Lent. Even so the remarks of one of my pupils on this topic stay with me. “So people give up crisps and chocolate during Lent. It’s a diet thing then is it?” That’s pretty damning.

We often think of Lent as a time to perform acts of sacrifice that will please God in some way, perhaps to earn his favour. Such sacrifices are pointless because we will never be able to please God. The readings all through the season, leading inexorably to the crucifixion and atonement, show us that the salvation that comes with Jesus’ death is a gift from God, not a reward earned. It is only our genuine faith in that event that justifies us.

If our feeling is that we should give something up, it needs to be from a sense of obedient discipleship, truly convicted by the promptings of The Spirit that this is God’s way forward for us at this time, not the habitual observance of an empty ritual. Nevertheless, however well we manage to enter into Jesus’ wilderness sacrifice; I think we’ve missed the greater point of the story.

What happened to Jesus while he was there? Let’s not forget the temptations.

Luke gives us the fullest account of the testing of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus’ subsequent recounting of this experience to his disciples clearly moved and inspired Luke and today we hear the intricate dialogue between Jesus and his tempter as Luke understood it: a wonderful fencing match – the thrust and parry of scriptural interpretation. Satan uses scripture to test Jesus and Jesus counters with more scripture: once, twice, three times.

Let’s take a look at the temptations: Just glance again at the Gospel reading, v6-12. If you are hungry, change stones into bread. If you are the son of God, leap from a tower and rely on angels to rescue you. If you bow down before me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. If the process for Jesus was about finding himself, out in the wilderness with Satan, Jesus risked losing himself not just geographically but spiritually.

Perhaps to make this more personal and more relevant to ourselves we may need to work out what the temptation wilderness is for us. It isn’t likely to be a desert: not around here anyway but there are temptation environments. One American writer I was looking at talked of the retail environment and the temptation to consumerism. Been to the White Rose Centre recently? Or Meadowhall? Now there’s a wilderness if ever I saw one. It will be different from person to person: for some it’s the wilderness of addiction – alcohol, drugs, sex or whatever; for others the wilderness of relationships or self-defeating behaviour; for others it’s the wilderness of the idolatry that comes with our society’s obsession with the cult of celebrity; for still others the wilderness of time management; ambition; ignorance of significant current issues; you name it, it’ll be someone’s stumbling block.

Maybe one practical thing we can ask God to help us explore this Lent is what the wildernesses environments of our own temptations are.

In the past when I have read or heard this Gospel passage I’ve often struggled to make sense of Jesus’ temptations in terms of how I am supposed to respond. While I do identify with being tempted, I don’t particularly identify with these temptations.

Now there are clearly a number of ways of interpreting them.

As a teenager this passage was very much the basis and justification for learning Biblical verses: like an evangelical boy scout I needed to be prepared and the ability to use the Bible to stave off temptation in the way that Jesus did was something to be emulated and was very much built into the fabric of the youth group I attended in those days. It’s a strategy and I’m not knocking it: just look at today’s Psalm for reassurance of God’s care. How reassuring to commit that to memory …… and yet this psalm contains some of the words the Tempter seeks to subvert in his dialogue with Jesus.

In the past I also remember finding it helpful when I was told that the temptation to turn the stones into bread has a wider interpretation that relates to the general temptation to acquisitiveness and avarice. It’s all about my greed. Equally helpful was the understanding that the temptation for Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple has a wider application today in the idea of attention-seeking or arrogance. “Look at me!” And who hasn’t fantasised about having real power? We can certainly apply to ourselves ideas of the over-riding desire for success and influence.

However accurate those interpretations might be, general as they are - but none the worse for that, I think they miss something important.

Many commentators maintain that these temptations represent some of the prominent messianic expectations of Jesus’ day: the people believed that the Messiah would feed the hungry, or release the nation from the domination of others, or call on the extraordinary power of God to perform miracles. These were all admirable deeds in themselves; they still are today. Who would not want to see that the hungry are well fed, or that people are granted self-determination? Who would not want to demonstrate the marvellous power of God at work in the world? But why are these good works presented here as temptations? Simple: Jesus is challenged to perform them for the wrong reasons. The temptations Jesus faced are temptations tailored specifically for him, not for anyone else. His temptations are not mine and my temptations will not be yours. We must each face our own. All of Satan’s questions to Jesus have the same core challenge: they go to the heart of who Jesus is and question that, seeking to undermine it. No matter that in the preceding chapter Luke has had Jesus baptized and identified by a voice from heaven as the Son, the Beloved. The tempter fed his ego. Yes, Jesus was finding himself and his purpose, and these temptations firmed-up both his self-awareness and his resolve.

It is the same for us: temptations go to the heart of who we are and question that, seeking to undermine it. No matter that in the earlier chapters of our lives we too are called to be God’s sons and daughters through baptism and are His beloved. These temptations usually feed our egos too but for the wary they can be used to firm up our self-awareness and resolve.

It seems that real temptation is often subtle, not obvious: and we too are frequently tempted to do good things, but for the wrong reasons or in inappropriate ways. In the face of each temptation, Jesus reminds the tempter that the heart of righteousness is commitment to God, not the performance of marvellous deeds. Jesus will indeed eventually feed the hungry, deliver the people from bondage and demonstrate the marvellous power of God but he will accomplish these feats in God’s good time and in a manner that will please God, not the crowds.

One more key element in this section: because the temptations were tailored to Jesus they were temptations to bypass the cross; to bypass the path through suffering to resurrection. Note Satan’s insinuations “If you are the son of God.” If. Yet Jesus has just come from his baptism where he has heard the affirming voice of his Father. “You are my son, my beloved.” Both Jesus and Satan know that Jesus is to rule over all the earth eventually. Much of the temptation lies in the potential for sidestepping the cross. In Satan’s temptation Jesus would be able to enjoy ruling the kingdoms of the world without ever having to remove their sin and suffer for their souls. Jesus in the end performs a greater miracle than transforming stones to bread; greater than jumping from the temple; greater than possessing the kingdoms of the world (not that they were Satan's to give anyway!). He walks the lonely path of commitment to the Father even when that path takes Him to the cross. The ultimate question behind every temptation is can we trust in the Father to rescue us from death, to bring meaning out of our suffering? Jesus is the proof that we can; the vindication of that belief is in His resurrection and this is St. Paul’s teaching to the Christians of Rome in today’s Epistle.

But what if we give in to our temptations? And let’s be honest, we will from time to time. We’ll fail because we’re human and that means we are fallen. The Holy Spirit is the resource that God has given us to battle the twin forces of temptation and free will but we still have that free will and the Holy Spirit doesn’t over-ride it. Maybe the thing to remember is that in the same way that temptation conquered can lead to spiritual growth so too can temptation succumbed to.

There is a caveat and it comes in the final words of the gospel for today. When Satan had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. He left him alone for the time being. There’s a reminder not to let our guard down. We are always vulnerable.